Chapter 4: Living off 10 Pounds per week and other depressing student realities

Going back to student life is the dream of many working adults. At least this is what I have been told by friends and acquaintances. People would keep telling me that student life was the best time of their lifes. However, I cannot agree, especially as far as my first year of university is concerned. I am therefore dedicating this post to sharing with you the struggles and depressive reality of my first year at university.

Being originally from Germany, I came to Glasgow (Scotland) for a Bachelor degree in Psychology. I arrived in Glasgow with only one big suitcase and one piece of hand luggage in autumn 2016. To my surprise, I remember the very day of my arrival quite vividly. I landed at Glasgow Airport lat-ish afternoon. Since I was not familiar with the city at all – in fact, I had never been to Glasgow ever before – I just showed the cab driver the address of my student accomodation and asked him to drive me there. It was one of the rare sunny days that you get up here in Scotland. I spent the whole taxi ride looking out with awe. Everything was new, everything was strange, and everything was strangely beautiful. I felt excited for this new chapter in my life. I then got dropped off in front of a massive block of student halls where one of the helpers guided me to my block and flat.

So far, my story is pretty much fitting the stereotype of a Fresher, who moves to a new city for going to university, and lives in student halls aka student jail. But this is not what I want to talk about. I do not intend to confirm this stereotype. Instead, I want to challenge this image of the typical life as first year student.

I am guessing that you expect a Fresher to be careless, reckless, and inexperienced. You probably associate a Fresher with a young adult who is celebrating their freedom and rite of passage by drinking extensively and partying harder than studying. Well, my story does not fit that image at all because too many struggles kept me from having all the fun.

My struggles started right from day one. Upon entering my tiny, prison-cell-like room in my halls, I had to make the shocking realisation that my bed came without any pillows or duvets. It was literally just a bed frame with a mattress on top. Since I was completely new in the city, the nearest shops were more than 20 minutes walk away, and it was almost about time for shops to close, I ended up being forced to sleep on my pillow-less bed during my first night. I was covered in my only big towel, and dressed in trousers and a sweater. I mean I survived the night better than expected, but this marked only the beginning of my struggles. Beside a claustrophobia-causing and nightmare-evoking accommodation, I had to face far more severe obstacles.

In contrast to lucky students, whose parents can afford to fully pay for their living cost — this is no attack to all of lucky students; it is me genuinely acknowledging the luxury you have — I had to rely on my remaining savings to survive. However, my savings equalled the total of merely three months’ worth of rent (3×450 GBP), excluding any further living cost, such as food. Additionally, I had no prospect of receiving regular monthly income anytime soon since my parents were strangled in their divorce. To top it all of, securing a student job turned out to be quadrillion times harder than expected. You can consequently imagine my daily, relentless worry about my finances. It surely was no pleasant time being constantly agitated by the fear of being unable to support myself. I would wake up every day to the exact same penetrating question:

“How can I get money to survive?”

It was a rough time trying to live with minimal expenditures. It caused me to utterly restrict myself to the bare necessities. I allowed myself a budget of 10 GBP per week for food shopping. Therefore, a typical food shop with my flat mates would look the following: While I had to seriously contemplate if I could afford the slightly more expensive Fusilli pasta instead of standard plain spaghetti, resort to the cheapest version of everything, and unyieldingly walk past my favourite cheese, my flatmates could seemingly unconcerned pack their shopping bags with olive oil, risotto rice, and breaded chicken fillet. I always envied my flat mates for their more-or-less carefree shopping habits (well as carefree as student life allows).

Similarly, I had no means of treating myself to any other pleasures of everyday life, such as drinking, eating out, ordering a cab home at night, investing into underwear, buying random stationary, going to the cinema, or taking the train to a neighbouring city (not that I had many options for that to begin with because, truth be told, Scotland really only consists of 5 cities or so). I could continue this list, of course; however, I am sure you get the idea: I had no money to spend on living.

Of course, not every fun activity, or hobby requires monetary investment. Yet, a considerable amount of activities does. In any case, my constant worries about my finances and my impending bankrupcy, or potential starvation and homelessness, kept me from enjoying even the free fun activities. Essentially, my constantly intruding worries about how to pay my next week’s food shop, not to mention my next month’s rent kept me from enjoying my life. I felt trapped, barely able to move in my own four walls, and strangled by the uncertainty of my future.  I was in a very dark place, with my state of mind being neither a sustainable, nor adaptable one. I even considered dropping out of university and leaving Glasgow alltogether. To make it all worse, I had little to no friends or family within physical reach to provide some social support and comfort. To sum it all up, my student life of First Year was a nightmare, and although I did not realise it back then, I can see it now clearer than ever before that I was actually suffering from depression.

I wonder how many students feel similarly, especially during their First Year of university. I feel as the problems with one’s mental health do not instantly come to mind when imaging a stereotypical student. Instead, they are overcast by the image of a drunk and wild party animal. In reality though it is no walk in the park to move to a completely new city, function as an independent, grown adult; adjust to new scenery and settings; establish social connections; and perform successfully at work, while staying healthy and fit. Whoever has tackled a challenge like this, you can be proud of yourself. It takes courage, strength, and endurance to overcome dark times as these, but it also builds resilience, resourcefulness, and character.

If you ask me now if I would like to go back, I would give you my most confident no. Would I do it differently, if I had the chance to go back? – most likely yes. At the same time, I value this time for what it was because it has made me value financial flexibility; a strong, reliable social network; and a rather sorrow-free life. My first semester at uni, no matter how dark it was, has humbled me, and it has certainly contributed to my personal development which I am more than proud of.

Tune into my podcast about framing stress and adverse life circumstances adaptively

I am now in my fourth and final year, enjoying the luxury of having so much financial freedom that I can chose to not work while studying. I can finally see what people mean when they say that student life has been the best time of their lives. I get to decide when and where I want to do my work, I can hang out with friends every day, I have free time to work on personal projects, and most importantly, I have never felt as happy and content before. I am truly enjoying life to the fullest now and who knows if I would feel as appreciative and fulfilled as I do now, had I not seen darker times before.  

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